REVIEW: "Night Begins The Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty" at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in san francisco
By Joe Ferguson
A recent survey found that the average visitor in an art museum looks at a painting for less than 2 seconds, reads the accompanying placard for another 10, glances back at the painting, and moves on. The Louvre found that visitors looked at the Mona Lisa for an average of 15 seconds. Artist Robert Hughes called this the Mona Lisa Curse. He was referring to the idea that it is more important to claim you have seen a piece of art, than having actually seen it.
If seeing art is simply a matter of understanding an artwork’s place in history, its contribution to perspective or technique, or its perceived value on the market, then learning to see art means only a connect-the-dot exercise of matching image to information—for example, painting and wall text.
Art, however, has an intangible impact. When we see certain images, particularly those of nature, we are in awe. The response has been discussed by many philosophers and artists over the centuries, but it was embraced by 18th- and 19th-century artists who called it sublime. The sublime was a philosophical and artistic response to rapid societal changes created by urbanization and industrialization, as well as discoveries of untamed wilderness in The New World. There is an older term, however, that is similar to the sublime that is the focus of a new exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Night Begins The Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty opened June 18th at the CJM, and it takes it direction from two ideas. First, the Jewish concept of time that a new day begins at sundown. Secondly, the Hebrew word yir’ah, that lacks an exact English translation, but is an amalgam of fear, awe, love, and beauty.
Josiah McElheny, "The Center is Everywhere," Brass, cut lead crystal, electric lighting, hand-bound book, 76 x 16 x 16 in. Courtesy of Artware Editions, New York. Night Begins the Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty. On view June 18–September 20, 2015. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.
Though the ideas in Night Begins The Day may be ancient, the exhibit is relevant and contemporary. Twenty-five artists, scientists, and creative thinkers were brought together to explore what yir’ah means to us in the here-and-now.
There are too many pieces to discuss in the constraints of this post, but a number stand out for their SciArt content. Josiah McElheny’s The Center is Everywhere is a brass and cut-lead crystal chandelier that is a map of a small section of the universe. Each crystal represents a star, a quasar, or a galaxy. The length of the rod that holds each crystal corresponds to the distance light from the astronomical element must travel to reach Earth.
Computer scientist Robert Kooima’s Total Perspective Vortex is named after a torture device in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. Using a joystick, viewers can navigate a portion of our galaxy created through an open-source computer program capable of rendering a database of 2,533,774 stars in real-time.
Michael Light re-contextualizes found military photographs of nuclear explosions in 100 Suns. The images are beautiful and terrifying. Light asks us to consider the image “as a kinetic, sculptural object that redefines splendor and takes us back to the theme of trembling in the light of the cosmos.”
Night Begins The Day is not a reverential history lesson with works that are odes to long-dead masters and their artistic movements. It does not dispose itself to cursory viewing. In fact, a quick trip through the gallery would be a travesty. The pieces on display beg a contemplative effort—they require time and introspection. Whether yir’ah or sublime, the reward is satisfying.
Night Begins The Day: Rethinking Space, Time, and Beauty is on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and runs through September 20th.